As India got down to their first practice session at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, ahead of the first Test against the West Indies starting on Thursday, Anil Kumble gathered his players around and called for a team huddle. What he told the team was quite inaudible, but then all 17 players warmed up with two laps of the ground.
It was almost akin to a human train, something seen regularly in a school playground than in the practice session of an international cricket team. It was a departure from their usual warm-up ritual of running in groups of two or three, and for their part, the players seemed to enjoy it.
And this has been the underlining importance of Kumble’s three-week period as Indian coach thus far – soaking in the fun whilst preparing for a big series.
From re-introducing John Wright’s ‘buddy’ programme, to frolicking on the beaches in the Caribbean, to horse riding and snorkelling, to sweating it out in the nets, this has been a seamless transition from Ravi Shastri’s tenure as team director.
Whether he steps onto the training field with clipboard in hand, or watches net practice from the umpire’s position, Kumble doesn’t seem out of place never mind his relative coaching inexperience.
Sachin Tendulkar on the new Indian head coach Anil Kumble. pic.twitter.com/IWfc1oOmfm— CricFit (@CricFit) July 13, 2016
A factor herein has been the immense respect the current squad has for the legendary leg-spinner, enhanced obviously by his achievements on the field of play.
Kumble only retired in 2008, when most of these Indian players were just about beginning to make a mark for themselves. Consequently, this is an integration of Indian cricket’s golden generation with its aspirations for the future.
“All of these Indian players will have seen him play and it will help them bond together,” said West Indies’ legendary pacer and now selector, Courtney Walsh, in the build-up to the first Test. “Kumble has been involved with cricket quite a lot since he stopped playing, so he knows the ins and outs of the game.
“His passion for the game is second to none, and is reflected in the manner this Indian team is led by Virat Kohli. I like to read body language and I can see how he wants to lead from the front.”
While Kumble will be gunning for success in his first outing as coach, Kohli will be looking at the larger picture. India are on the cusp of a hat-trick of Test series wins here in the Caribbean, after Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni led their sides to 1-0 victories in 2006 and 2011, respectively.
At the same time, the Indian skipper will also be hoping to keep a triumphant Test-run going, having won 2-1 in Sri Lanka and 3-0 at home against South Africa last year.
The visitors have had a good three weeks to prepare for the four-match contest here, including a camp in Bangalore and two practice matches in St Kitts. It is the longest run-in to a Test series the Indian team has had in recent years, and they might not get the same chance in the months to come.
Indeed this Test series lends itself into an extensive home season wherein India host New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia back-to-back, for 13 Tests from late September to March 2017. Starting with the slow wickets in the West Indies to even-more familiar conditions back home, this run could see them challenge for the Test No. 1 ranking.
St John’s, ANTIGUA — Step on the mounds at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on the outskirts of St. John’s, and you can see a singular pitch in the distance. Three days before the first Test between West Indies and India commences here (on July 21), it looked crisp brown. Step a little closer and you will see fresh patches of grass all over it, perhaps to hold the wicket together for five days. It might not be enough though.
“We have seen in the past that pitches sometimes have a sprinkling of grass, but they tend to slow down nevertheless as the game progresses,” said Indian batting coach Sanjay Bangar on Tuesday. “We are expecting slow wickets throughout the series, but it remains to be seen how much grass is left on this pitch before the first day of the Test.”
There cannot be an iota of doubt that the final situation of this pitch will have a bearing on the combination India will go in with. It brings about a strong possibility that the visitors will opt for their full arsenal of spinners – R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra. Just how will West Indies measure up to this troika?
Everywhere you go in the Caribbean, anyone you talk to, will say that the pitches here have slowed down considerably. The other fanciful topic is obviously the decline of West Indies’ cricket as a whole, and in reality the two are associated somewhat. No more do you get the battery of pacers going full tilt at visiting batsmen. Why, Shannon Gabriel stands in front of the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay. It can be safely assumed that they might just have a better time playing him than his own batsmen when faced with India’s spin troika.
“Ideally you want to see a balance of conditions, something in it for pacers on the first two days, and then the pitch should help batsmen and spinners. You can hope for this now, but don’t hold too much of it, given how the pitches here have slowed down. I think they have slowed down a bit too much for our liking. So these slower wickets will definitely help India and it will be a test for the West Indies’ batsmen,” said legendary pacer and now WICB selector Courtney Walsh, ahead of the first Test.
He was in St. Kitts for the two practice matches last week, and his exasperation could be seen from the wickets laid out for the two games. A few Indian players weren’t really surprised, deeming the wickets as similar to the ones back home, albeit slower and producing a touch more bounce. Needless to say, their spinners are licking lips.
At the front of this line is R Ashwin, India’s foremost spin weapon at present. He is almost unplayable at home, particularly if the pitches provide even a little assistance. Nine months ago, South Africa came face-to-face against him on tailored tracks and they can vouch how lethal he can be.
However, the fact that those pitches were ‘tailored’ hides his abilities a bit. Roll back a couple months though, when India were playing in Sri Lanka last year, and pitches there were more akin to what we might find in the West Indies now, particularly in terms of bounce.
It was similarly so in St. Kitts atleast, as Ashwin was deployed in the second hour of play on day one of the second tour match. Post lunch, he tempted Test-hopeful John Campbell to charge down, and had him stumped. It was a battle that had lasted almost an hour, as the bowler had pegged away but found the batsman unwilling. For the rest of the day, he bowled in tandem with Ravindra Jadeja, who was brought into the attack at the other end.
The left-arm spinner’s returns from that game were a mixed bag. In the first innings, he bowled an extensive spell of 13 overs, taking 3-16, a clever mix of quick, straight deliveries and his natural variation. Two days later, he bowled from a different end, and was smacked this time for three sixes within an hour. Ashwin, meanwhile, had started off with the new ball and finished with 3-59. The underlining point herein is the pairing of these two spinners – one attacked, the other held fort, their roles reversed as conditions changed and situations fluctuated.
“Bowling on these slower wickets will be challenging. We need our bowlers to be patient and be consistent with their line and length. It is most important that they compliment each other and bowl in partnerships,” opined Indian vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane.
Then there is the third leg of this tripod, Amit Mishra. Overlooked by MS Dhoni for most part of his Test captaincy, he has become a vital cog in Kohli’s plans, someone who loves mixing up his different bowling options in short spells. In Sri Lanka, he was the second-choice spinner. At home against South Africa, with Jadeja returned, he was demoted to third-choice. It isn’t a factor lost out on the leggie, and yet it is very well what drives him.
Not to mention, he is the one who benefits most by the arrival of legendary leg-spinner Anil Kumble as Indian coach. On Monday, Mishra was handed out a coaching manual, with Kumble marking up zones on the practice pitch as to where the leggie might be able to get most purchase. It is not to say that Ashwin or Jadeja won’t gain in a same manner, but Mishra will finally be able to make a step up and live up to the billing of being Kumble’s successor, that too under his tutelage.
“I personally believe that we have forged a great partnership between the three of us,” said Jadeja, in the build-up to the first Test. “We have three different spin bowlers – off-break, left-arm and leg-break – and all of us have different variations. Why, all of us have different bowling speeds. It will be challenging for the West Indies’ batsmen in the upcoming series.”
To restrict this as an ominous warning for the hosts is easy. In fairness though, the spin troika is the baseline upon which team India will challenge for the Test number one ranking over the course of 17 Tests (away in West Indies, afterwards at home against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia) in this 2016-17 season.
And it begins on Thursday.
Venue: Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, North Sound, Antigua
Date & Time: July 21, 1800 (GST)
It was a few days ago that, during their preparation for this contest, photos of the Indian team meeting the West Indian great Sir Viv Richards surfaced on Twitter. Some were shared by the BCCI’s official Twitter account, while others were posted by the players themselves.
On Thursday, a ground named after this legend of the game is where India and the West Indies will begin the first match of a four-Test series. The stadium is at North Sound, Antigua, a place that sounds more befitting of an alternative, denim-heavy clothing line or a rock music festival. Richards was one of cricket’s rockstars in his playing days, however, so perhaps the name is more appropriate than it first seems.
There remain countless selection dilemmas for both sides. A question mark hangs over the West Indies’ middle order and the exact composition of their bowling attack, while the larger, more overarching decision of whether to select four bowlers or five remains unmade for India.
Perhaps it is unnecessarily cruel and more than a touch arrogant, but depressingly not a long way off from reality, to claim that India’s selection of four or five bowlers depends on whether their plan is to defeat the West Indies by the might of their batting or bowling.
Both teams have played a combined total of one Test match in 2016. That was the West Indies’ draw against Australia at Sydney. While this would ordinarily suggest both teams would be engaged in a battle to determine which of them is less out of match practice, the two tour games played at Basseterre, St Kitts may prove to be of more benefit to India than meets the eye.
It gave the Indians a chance to play together as a unit for the first time under their new coach Anil Kumble, and several of those who featured against the Board President’s XI can be expected to play against the full West Indies side at North Sound. This is a gelling experience the West Indies have not been afforded, as only a few of the Board President’s XI would make the final team for the Test match.
It may not seem like much, but when the participants in a sporting contest are equally shorn of Test cricket, the benefits of each practice match are magnified hugely.
The West Indies have grappled with issues of form and consistency of performance, but their team selection is fairly straightforward. This, despite the fact that number four Marlon Samuels has struggled badly in Test cricket of late.
Decisions on the exact nature of the bowlers selected also have to be taken – the home side have only two specialist fast bowlers and one specialist spinner in the squad – and the retirement of Jerome Taylor from Test cricket and the exclusion of Kemar Roach from the side has not helped. The attack is quite raw and their inexperience may be shown up.
For India, doubts hang over the places of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma in the side for reasons of performance. Other exclusions, mostly of bowlers like Ravindra Jadeja or Umesh Yadav, would be for tactical reasons.
The Test match is set to be played at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. It is a fairly new ground (opened in 2007) and has hosted only four Test matches. The old Antigua Recreation Ground at St John’s was a quite draw-tastic venue – 12 of the 22 Tests played there were drawn – and the new venue seems to be following in its footsteps: only one Test match has produced a result so far.
The ground has been the subject of controversy in the past, owing to the poor state of its pitch and outfield. It does not, however, differ too greatly from the old ground at Antigua. This means conditions in the first Test are likely to be slow, plodding and unresponsive. Some covering of grass is also expected to be present. Getting a result may prove problematic and the Test match is likely to transform into a war of attrition.
Barring a self-manufactured collapse, there is enough on the pitch for both sides’ batting to prosper. The opening in this Test match might just come from an individual error.
WATCH OUT FOR
CARLOS BRATHWAITE: The Barbadian all-rounder who will forever be remembered for his last-over dismantling of Ben Stokes in the World T20 final, Brathwaite celebrated his 28th birthday on July 18. Victory over India would constitute the ideal present for him and Brathwaite may well gift it to himself.
His debut in Test cricket only came on the tour to Australia, where he played the second and third Tests. In these, his performances were at least promising, if not outright impressive. Though the now-two-Test veteran managed only one wicket, he slammed two aggressive fifties against the Australians to restore some dignity to the West Indian batting.
His form in his last outing for the West Indies – an ODI tri-series against Australia and South Africa at home – suffered, however. In 7 innings, he managed only 86 runs and claimed 9 wickets at an economy of 5.36 and a strike rate of 38.6.
The hope, though, remains, and Brathwaite is equally adept with both bat and ball. He has the temperament for Test cricket and will be key for the West Indies in this series. All-rounders illuminate a cricket ground with their constant involvement in proceedings and can effect any number and manner of game-changing moments. The Windies are expectant.
VIRAT KOHLI: The captain is always a cause for great excitement in any touring party in a foreign land. Kohli, however, often takes that excitement up to eleven. This is his second tour as full Test skipper and his first outside Asia. There is pressure on him to deliver both as a batsman and as a captain, as India find themselves in the slightly awkward position of favourites.
Being a top-dog brings completely different expectations with it, and it is perhaps not outlandish to claim that Kohli is the first Indian skipper in history to deal with this kind of psychological challenge. Perhaps his attitude is part of the reason: his predecessor’s über-cool approach seemed to convert every Test into a contest of evens, while Kohli simply believes that every match can be won.
His batting has slipped a little bit since taking the reins, but some gritty application on slow West Indian pitches could see Kohli’s talent converted into big scores. After all, the last time India played a series outside the subcontinent, Kohli finished with four hundreds in the Test matches.
To optimise the conditions, the West Indies can bat up to number eight if required, and the lack of out-and-out specialist bowlers in the squad might be a blessing in disguise.
The most dangerous thing on a dreary pitch is to fall into the trap of being predictable, as the Indian batsmen can become difficult to dislodge when they hit their stride – though none of them are classically patient and defensive players and, crucially, could be provoked into rash decisions – and captain Holder could rotate his variety of bowling options frequently to keep the visitors on their toes.
Kraigg Brathwaite, Rajendra Chandrika, Darren Bravo, Marlon Samuels, Jermaine Blackwood, Leon Johnson/Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich (wk), Carlos Brathwaite, Jason Holder, Shannon Gabriel/Miguel Cummins, Devendra Bishoo
A few questions over selection for India have their own easy answers. From the last Test series against South Africa, none of the proposed changes are desperate gambles or Hail Marys – all floated replacements have Test experience and now it is time to give them their chance.
A slow pitch at North Sound could see the inclusion of as many as three spinners in the side for tactical reasons.
Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra/Stuart Binny, Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma